43 Race and the Dominant Gaze: Narratives of Law and Inequality in Popular Film
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43 Race and the Dominant Gaze: Narratives of Law and Inequality in Popular Film MARGARET M. RUSSELL In The Birth ofa Nation (Epoch Pictures, 1915), frequently cited as a milestone in the history of American motion pictures, D. W. Griffith offered his vision of race relations in the United States. Originally entitled The Clansman, the film portrays a South ravaged by the Civil War, corrupted by Reconstruction, and eventually redeemed by the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. The Birth of a Nation conveys its blunt white supremacist message through a narrative chronicling the effect of the Civil War on the South Carolina plantation of the Cameron family. As the silent film begins, subtitles extol the virtues of the Camerons' tranquil way of life which "is to be no more." Benevolent masters are served by loyal slaves who contentedly pick cotton, perform domestic chores, and otherwise aim to please. By war's end, this felicitous social order has degenerated into lawlessness. The newly emancipated roam the streets and terrorize the white community; anarchic hordes take over the polls, disenfranchise white voters, and seize control of the Congress. Griffith's first black legislators are contemptible, priapean fools; swigging from whiskey bottles and gnawing on fried chicken legs, they conduct their first legislative session with shoes off and legs splayed carelessly across their desks. The film depicts emancipation as destructive of the private sphere as well; freedmen lust after Southern belles, and communities fall prey to "ruin, devastation , raping, and pillage." The saga climaxes with a dramatic, victorious ride to the rescue by the Klan, which defeats the black rebels and restores civilization. The Birth of a Nation was advertised upon its release as a film that would "work audiences into a frenzy ... it will make you hate."l The "you" to whom this exhortation was addressed, of course, was not a neutral or universal "you," but a specifically targeted one: the white viewer threatened by integration and fearful of black insurgency. Through a carefully constructed fusion of unprecedented technical wizardry and degrading racial stereotypes , Griffith sought to convince his audience that his was the "true" story of the old South and that white domination was necessary for their survival. To a great extent, he succeeded: The film's enormous popularity fueled the growing influence of the Klan, and The Birth of a Nation remains to this day one of the highest-grossing box office successes in Hollywood history. Thus, it continues to be important not only as an individual aesthetic statement or arcane historical artifact, but as a popular work which has profoundly affected both popular discourse and events concerning race relations in the United States. 15 LEGAL STUD. F. 243 (1991). Originally published in Legal Studies Forum. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 268 Margaret M. Russell In this latter respect-as a text about race, dominance, and the American social/legal order -The Birth ofa Nation exemplifies what I would call the "dominant gaze": the tendency of mainstream culture to replicate, through narrative and imagery, racial inequalities and biases which exist throughout society. I derive the term "dominant gaze" from Laura Mulvey 's feminist critique of Hollywood movies, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,"2 in which she contends that popular film essentially serves the political function of subjugating female bodies and experiences to the interpretation and control of a heterosexual "male gaze." According to Mulvey, any observer's potential to experience visual and visceral pleasure from watching Hollywood movies is completely predicated upon acceptance of a patriarchal worldview in which men look and women are looked at, men act and women are acted upon. She further contends that this distinctly male-oriented perspective insidiously perpetuates sexual inequality by forcing the viewer (whether male or female) to identify with and adopt a perspective which objectifies and dehumanizes women. Finally, she asserts that only through concerted deconstruction and disruption of the male gaze can women achieve equality in societal relations and in the cultural representations which reinforce them. Extending Mulvey's metaphor, I use the term "dominant gaze" to describe the tendency of American popular cinema to objectify and trivialize the racial identity and experiences of people of color, even when it purports to represent them. Like Mulvey's male gaze, the dominant gaze subtly invites the viewer to empathize and identify with its viewpoint as natural, universal, and beyond challenge; it marginalizes other perspectives to bolster its own legitimacy in defining narratives and images. As D. W. Griffith illustrated so effectively...


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